I bet you thought I was done with all this listmaking business for 2009. Not quite. My recent fin-de-decade compilation of my favorite albums was a consuming, months-long project, as was the collaborative list of 100 albums I worked on with some fellow higher ed colleagues from across the nation. As part of the process for both of those projects, I sorted albums by year and ranked them. Not wanting to waste a good list, I hereby present to you…
The 20 best albums of 2009
Plus some also-rans
1. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown
A powerful follow-up to their truly epic 2004 punk rock opera American Idiot, 21st Century Breakdown is not quite on a par with that masterpiece. But it is a strong, cohesive work in its own right, and this trio has blossomed beyond its typecast of the angry young suburban West Coast candy punks to become one of the tightest and most significant rock bands of the 2000s. Even though Green Day only turned out two albums in the 2000s, they honed both into powerful commentaries of life, culture and politics in early 21st century America.
2. Sin Fang Bous, Clangour
Obscure album of the year. The best album you’ve never heard by the best indie group you’ve never heard of. Best thing to come from Iceland since Bjork. Yada yada… I discovered this album early in 2009 and was charmed by the eclectic mix of stylings and experimentation. It’s stayed on the playlist throughout the year.
3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz
I’ve been a YYYs fan since they first burst on the scene early in the decade. But with this release, Karen O. and company have finally outgrown the caterwauling and New York art-punk style. Well, sort of. They’ve scaled down the shrieks and upped the techno-disco stylings. The result is a creative work that depart just far enough from what made YYYs the great band they’ve become, and enriches their repertoire.
4. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
I tried hard to not be sucked in to this album, because I didn’t want to be let down. The Avett Brothers’ earlier releases left me indifferent. I saw them as little more than just another bluegrassy, rootsy indie band. But the writing on songs like the title track and “Ten Thousand Words” is simply beautiful, and the arrangements, so spare and moving. Produced by Rick Rubin, who seems to have a knack for bringing out the best in musicians, I and Love and You is one you’ll listen to over and over.
5. M. Ward, Hold Time
I discovered M. Ward in his 2008 collaboration with Zooey Deschanel, She and Him, and thought this guy had potential. Of course, I was late to the game, as Ward had already proven his worth with earlier releases like Transistor Radio and Post-War, which both are tremendous albums in their own right. In Hold Time, however, Ward really comes into his own, and he does it by having fun, covering old-timey classics and collaborating with other artists. He enlists Ms. Deschanel for a couple of tracks, including a great restyling of an old Buddy Holly tune (“Rave On”), and his duet with Lucinda Williams on Hank Williams’ “Oh, Lonesome Me” is simply one of the most beautiful cuts of the year, in my opinion. Fans of that old-timey music will appreciate the way Ward brings a fresh sound.
6. Passion Pit, Manners
So much has been written about the phenomenon known as Passion Pit that I hesitate to add much, except to say that this album is more fun than it should be, and I’m kind of embarrassed by how much I enjoy it.
7. Elvis Costello, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
Elvis C. has come a long way since his days as the angry young punk-poet of My Aim Is True. In the 30-plus years since, he has collaborated with the likes of Burt Bacharach, married jazz stylist Diana Krall, and toyed around with rootsy, fiddly music alongside folks like T. Bone Burnett. With this 2009 release, Costello teamed with Burnett again to create a terrific, fun roots album.
8. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
An interesting concept album from one of those indie groups that has been very hit and miss for me. I loved some of their earlier stuff, but didn’t get the vibe of The Crane Wife, which amassed such critical acclaim. With The Hazards of Love, the band has regained my favor. Good for them. And good for me for not writing them off.
9. The Thermals, Now We Can See
What can I say? I love this upbeat album and the nasally singing.
10. Wilco, Wilco (The Album)
Wilco (The Band) delivers another terrific, cohesive album.
11. Thao With the Get Down Stay Down, Know Better Learn Faster
Best band name of the year.
12. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty
The New Pornographers front man produces a decent album that sounds a lot like the New Pornographers. But no Neko Case? :(
13. Sonic Youth, The Eternal
Sonic Geezers? These folks have been at it for going on three decades now. But this album delivers some fresh, clangy, dissonant noise. Just like the old days.
14. Metric, Fantasies
15. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Former Drive-By Trucker drives hard with a melodic album full of those southern-gothic stories.
16. Various Artists, Dark Was the Night
This two-disc compilation of indie rock stars — Sufjan Stevens, Spoon, Bitte Orca, The Naitonal, Conor Oberst, Arcade Fire and more, plus David Byrne — was both a surprise and a delight.
17. Bon Iver, Blood Bank EP
More earnest, heartfelt music from the bearded indie backwoodsman.
18. MGMT, Time to Pretend EP
Rehash of a couple of tunes from the band’s 2008 monster Oracular Spectacular, plus some other stuff.
19. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
Indie’s very own supergroup — Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), M. Ward, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and some other guy whose name escapes me right now — creates a decent album, but the sum of the parts don’t quite add up on every track. Still the talents of all members get a chance to shine.
20. Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain
A later release, I immediately latched on to this, hoping it would be as good as Siberia. But then I realized that was a tall order, so I decided to appreciate this album for what it is: a fine, bouncy, new-wavish work.
The Dodos, Time to Die
The xx, xx
The Arctic Monkeys, Humbug
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t
Vieux Farka Toure, Fondo
U2, No Line on the Horizon
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Outer South
A Camp, Colonia
Cracker, Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms
Modest Mouse, No One’s First, And You’re Next EP
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
We Were Pirates, Cutting Ties
John Doe and the Sadies, Country Club
Julian Casablancas, Phazes for the Young
Mexican Institute of Sound, Soy Sauce
Justin Townes Earle, Midnight at the Movies
White Rabbits, It’s Frightening
Major Lazer, Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do
Rodrigo Y Gabriela, 11:11
The Raveonettes, In and Out of Control
Those Darlins, Those Darlins
Viva Voce, Rose City
Music Go Music, Expressions
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, La Luz Del Ritmo